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Born: February 3, 1935
Died: May 17, 1996
Best Known For: A pioneer and innovator of blues, R&B, and electric funk guitar, Watson influenced a wide range of players—from Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and Stevie Ray Vaughan to vocal legends like Etta James.
It seems odd to call someone whose soulful guitar work and flamboyant showmanship influenced artists as diverse (and acclaimed) as Etta James, Frank Zappa, Prince, and Rick James a “forgotten hero.” But, unfortunately, Johnny “Guitar” Watson never achieved the level of fame that those he inspired did—a point that is painfully underscored by the fact that he’s occasionally confused with “Wah- Wah” Watson (also a wonderful player who deserves praise). Johnny “Guitar” Watson had a groundbreaking—if up-and-down— career that spanned five decades of American popular music. A career that included everything from a Grammy nomination to having his drug problem spotlighted on VH1’s Behind the Music.
T Is for Texas
On February 3, 1935, Wilma Watson gave birth to John Watson Jr. in Houston, Texas. His father, John Sr., played piano as a part-time job, and ended up teaching the instrument to his son. At age 11, Watson’s gospel-playing grandfather offered him an acoustic guitar if he promised he wouldn’t play “the devil’s music”—meaning blues and R&B. Whether or not he ever intended to keep that promise, under the spell of fellow Texans T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Watson soon broke it. In the liner notes for The Very Best of Johnny “Guitar” Watson, David Ritz quotes Watson as saying, “T-Bone had all the flash and fire, which I wanted.”
Unsatisfied with the volume of his flattop, Watson claimed he stole an early DeArmond pickup and screwed it under the strings. The pickup’s cable screwed on to both pickup and amplifier, hampering his early performance style. Or, as he put it, “If you try to go anywhere, you better bring everything with you.”
By age 12, Watson secured a record contract, thanks to the help of DJ and R&B legend Johnny Otis. In what would become a pattern when it came to label relations, the tween musician bucked the higher-ups by refusing to record children’s songs, and was soon dropped. But Watson remained undiscouraged. By his teens, he was gigging with Texas bluesmen Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland.
In 1950, John Sr. and Wilma separated. Wilma took young John Jr. to Los Angeles, where he soon won several talent shows and was discovered by Amos Milburn and Chuck Higgins. Watson’s first recording experience came as a 17-year-old pianist playing on Higgins’ hit “Pachuko Hop.” On the single’s flip side, he made his vocal debut with “Motorhead Baby.” He would re-record the latter a year later, when he had his own record deal.
On January 20, 1953, two weeks before his 18th birthday, Young John Watson (as he was then billed) recorded his first single for Federal Records. He was backed by Amos Milburn’s band on a tune called “Highway 60.” The next year he recorded the seminal single “Space Guitar.” Often cited as pioneering the use of feedback and reverb, there is, in fact, no feedback on the record. However, the engineer did randomly crank the studio reverb settings on this Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown-style jump blues instrumental, giving it a unique, spaced-out feel. In 1996, Watson told Goldmine magazine: “Reverb had just come out. Everybody really didn’t understand what it was all about, man, and I was experimenting with it.” Though the record has become a classic and a collector’s item, the world was not yet ready for it. “Space Guitar” was just one more failed single for Federal, and the label soon dropped Watson’s contract.